A series that launched itself on the same day as Kinect debuted, the Dance Central franchise has become one of the flagship staples of the motion-sensing accessory. Developed by Harmonix, the same company which created the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series, the games have been built on the idea of controller-free dancing. Now, Dance Central 3 is here, and both longtime fans and newcomers to the series will find a lot to like about it.
In some ways, Dance Central 3 makes the directions that the series has evolved most in very clear. The first title had a multiplayer mode that required players to take turns and dance one at a time and no plot or campaign mode to speak of. The second title introduced simultaneous two-player dancing and also incorporated a campaign mode called Crew Challenges, which had players dancing through specific sets of songs with a light narrative sprinkled into the mix. Dance Central 3 builds on the multiplayer template established in the last title, and adds a slightly more concrete plot, with the mode formerly known as Crew Challenges having been retitled as Story.
This iteration’s core gameplay is identical to that of its predecessors. A character is shown performing specific moves to the tune of a specific song, and the player has to dance along in unison and mimic those moves. While a timeline on the side of the screen displays both preview icons for the current move and the two that will follow it, the best way to get each move down is to enter the game’s practice mode beforehand. Here, players can either practice every move or personally single out ones that have given them trouble, repeating the action(s) until the game’s grading system finds their mimic to be acceptable enough.
To make things easier, players can also slow the song down to half speed to further analyze the moves. Additionally, the Kinect sensor’s video recording ability can be put to good use, in order to find out which limb is in the wrong. Finally, the tutorials are narrated by none other than Usher, who also personally contributed to the choreography for his two songs that show up in the game’s tracklist. Practice enough times, and you’ll hear the singer point out each step with simple descriptions, such as, “Step! Slide! Clap!” to make things even more specific.
Another way to master the moves is to simply to play a song without any prior practice and attempt to mimic the moves as best as you can the first time around. This is possible due to the fact that, unlike many other music-based games such as Rock Band, there’s no health meter at all, and it’s literally impossible to fail out of a song at any point. The focus is simply to get the moves down and get a high score, which is represented by both an onscreen point counter and a five-star grading system.
All of this might make Dance Central 3 seem like a game with a steep learning curve, but the experience is an accessible one, thanks to the inclusion of various difficulty modes. Each song has always had Easy, Normal and Hard difficulties with different moves of appropriate complexity in each, but to help those who want to ease into the series, Harmonix has added a new Beginner difficulty to every one of the series’ featured songs, including those released for this sequel’s two predecessors. This greatly reduces the amount of unique moves in each song, and has the player repeat specific moves several times in a row, giving them multiple chances to perfect each one and not be thrown off by a continuous stream of new motions to quickly get down. It’s a welcome feature for those who have never played a Dance Central game before.
The story mode starts out with the player being invited to an underground dance club that turns out to be the secret agency Dance Central Intelligence, or DCI. After proving your worth to top agents Rasa and Lima by performing the first batch of songs, they reveal their ongoing mission to put a stop to “dance crimes.” The current crisis involves the maniacal Dr. Tan traveling through time in an attempt to stamp out all freeform dance and force everyone to dance under his jurisdiction. All of the playable characters from previous games have been recruited by DCI already and, via a handy time machine, have been sent back to go undercover in every decade from the 1970s to the 2000s. It’s up to the player to travel to each decade, contact each pair of agents, and gather energy from dances to power the ride back to the present and eventually confront Tan one-on-one.
If this sounds incredibly silly, it is, but the game thankfully never tries to play things completely straight-faced. Character dialogue is appropriately over-the-top and comical, and additional crazy elements like mind control helmets are brought into the picture as things progress. However, though the tone is right, the presented storyline doesn’t include much more substance than its most recent predecessor’s plot line did. Scenes of dialogue are generally structured the same way as Dance Central 2, with each pair of dancers only having actual conversations before and after each set of dances. The only new addition is revisiting the DCI agents in-between sets and getting updates on the fight against Tan, but even in those, not much really happens.
I also thought the final act and ending could have been handled better. The agents you’ve become familiar with are removed from the picture entirely and are only referred to off-screen after a point, and the final cutscene is underwhelmingly brief. While this doesn’t put much of a damper on the rest of the game, it is a bit odd that Harmonix has been toting a deeper story as one of the selling points this time around when, in reality, there’s not much more to the overall narrative than there was in Dance Central 2.
One element unique to this story comes in the form of having four unique moves in each set that are required for the player to accurately perform at least one time. Once all four have been mastered and enough total stars are gathered from the set, the final song, each one being referred to as a “Dance Craze”, is unlocked. These include iconic dances appropriate to each decade, such as the Hustle in the 70s and the Macarena in the 90s. While this is a fairly creative way to progress, a frustrating possibility it introduces is that, if a player screws up each chance to correctly perform one of the four moves, they must play the song again until they get it down. This happened to me twice, and felt like an unnecessary road bump of sorts.
Even though some of the narrative elements fall flat, Dance Central has always been a series about actually dancing as opposed to one built on strong characters and plots – and it handles this aspect very well. Body detection via the Kinect is very accurate, with few instances where you feel you’re being judged unfairly. The moves for each song sync up well with the mood and structure of each track, and the track list is generally top-notch. The time travel aspect means you’ll be seeing a few more older tracks than previous games and, while by the end you’ll be dancing to modern mainstays such as Justin Bieber, Nikki Minaj and Maroon 5, you’ll also encounter such artists as Gloria Gaynor and the Village People. Even iconic pop groups like New Kids On The Block and the Backstreet Boys make appearances. With such a wide spectrum of music, it’s doubtful that there will be many people who appreciate every last track in the game, but at the same time, there’s something for everyone here.
Multiplayer offers various new modes besides the traditional dance-offs. New to the party is the Make Your Move mode, where players take turns making up their own dance moves in front of the camera and having their opponents try to master them. There’s also Keep the Beat, where instead of having to copy specific moves, players can dance freestyle, so long as it’s to the beat of the song. Whichever player dances in a more timely manner gets the most points. Finally, Party Time mode randomly shuffles through your available tracks and also picks which mode you’ll play them in.
Completionists and achievement hunters will find a lot of replayability past the fairly brief Story mode. In addition to the four different routines for each song, an experience and level-up system making use of the stars earned in each song has been added. While the first Dance Central had a similar mechanic, this one is a bit more in-depth, actually specifying how many stars are required for the next level and applying bonus stars for various factors like playing a downloadable song or a higher difficulty. With each level, new characters, outfits and dancing venues are made available. As far as the purely cosmetic aspect goes, Dance Central 3 has the boasting rights for how much content it fits in. It also doesn’t hurt that it brings back a few things that were missing in the second game. Let’s just say that if you were saddened to find your character of choice from the original gone in Dance Central 2, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with some of the unlocks this time around. I know I was.
If dancing games have never been your cup of tea, Dance Central 3 isn’t going to change a thing. It sticks to what has made the series work from day one while fine-tuning it, enhancing it and making it more accessible all at the same time. While the story isn’t anything to write home about, the actual gameplay is a blast, and those who have enjoyed previous entries in the series should definitely pick this one up.
This review is based on the XBOX 360 version of the game.